A New York moment

The musical <i>On the Town</i>, now revived by English National Opera, is a love letter to a city at the height of its glamour, says Veronica Horwell
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The Independent Culture

Betty Comden, a "Brooklyn goil" who studied drama at New York University, buddied up with Adolph Green, a wannabe actor out of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, as they waited in line for a Broadway chorus audition in the late 1930s. They ganged up with Judith Tuvim, of Queens, who changed her name to Judy Holliday. The trio had no jobs and no money, but they did have wit and the intimacy with pop and non-pop culture natural to those raised in New York, the city that had, with its publishing houses, magazines, radio and theatres, defined itself as the 20th-century destination for aspirants.

Betty Comden, a "Brooklyn goil" who studied drama at New York University, buddied up with Adolph Green, a wannabe actor out of DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, as they waited in line for a Broadway chorus audition in the late 1930s. They ganged up with Judith Tuvim, of Queens, who changed her name to Judy Holliday. The trio had no jobs and no money, but they did have wit and the intimacy with pop and non-pop culture natural to those raised in New York, the city that had, with its publishing houses, magazines, radio and theatres, defined itself as the 20th-century destination for aspirants.

This ultimate urban complex was home, even homey, for these kids, and compact enough for Holliday to wander out of the rain one night in 1938 into a Greenwich Village basement venue, the Vanguard. It had no bar, no liquor licence, no phone and almost no customers. The proprietor, Max Gordon (who had entered New York via Ellis Island), asked if she knew anybody who might do a show Sundays, as light relief from poetry readings. The trio, plus friends, obliged.

The Revuers, as they called themselves, were booked five nights a week. They wrote their own material to avoid paying royalties, and set sketches outdoors so they could wear their coats because the Vanguard was cold. They first pulled in, they later said, "middle-class intelligent folk of a very urban nature", then "distinguished folks", then "staff of The New Yorker". They went uptown to Gordon's non-poetry joint, the Blue Angel; they played the Rainbow Room at the Rockefeller Centre, and at Radio City, had 16 weeks of a show on NBC and had parts in a drama that folded on an-out-of-town try-out. Then they were broke.

They entrained to Los Angeles in the winter of 1943-44, but The Revuers' urbanity charmed no audience there and the trio broke up. Holliday stayed on for a while, Comden went back to New York first, and when Green walked, solo, up the ramp at Grand Central Station, a has-been before he was 30, she was waiting with a rah-rah and a sign hand-lettered "Adolph Green Fan Club".

While they were in Hollywood, their chief fan had been in flat-out employment. Leonard Bernstein (from Lawrence, Massachusetts, a New Yorker by devotion) knew Green from stints they worked in summer camp; he'd dropped by the Vanguard and Angel, recited Revuer skits, improvised with them to dawn, and accompanied them on NBC. During their season away, he'd become Mr New American Music; he substituted, without rehearsal, for Bruno Walter, conducting the New York Philharmonic, premiered his first symphony, Jeremiah, and finished a score for the American Ballet Theatre. The dancer Jerome Robbins, (born Upper East Side, educated New York University and burlesque houses) worked out its choreography while touring - directions and music were exchanged by post. His idea was as immediate, and as NY, as a Life shot of a matelot's smooch: in the year before D-Day, hundreds of thousands of US servicemen funnelled into New York by train to embark for Europe, or to bust out of the Brooklyn navy yards on shore leave; the ballet, Fancy Free, followed three sailors on the loose for 24 hours to take in, or take out, the beauties of New York.

Fancy Free opened on April 18, 1944, and was an instant wow. Its designer, Oliver Smith (born Waupun, Wisconsin, went native in NY after college), believed so much that it could be made into a musical that he became its producer, and convinced George Abbott (born New York State, a power on Broadway since 1910), to direct it. Bernstein, Robbins and Smith, with Comden and Green (who had been co-opted into writing the book and lyrics), were all new Broadway babies; as Smith said, the show, On The Town now revived by English National Opera), expressed the love they felt for their city.

That collective love was specific not only to the place, but to the place at that time. They began to write around D-Day and premiered the show on 28 December 1944, in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. In those six months, New York was the sole world metropolis where the lights were still on and the economy booming. It had it all: nylons! Hershey Bars! It was in the last phase of the ascent to its zenith in 1945, powered by its architectural and artistic modernism, and by America's pent wartime energy passing purposefully through it at speed. Comden and Green remembered later how everyone wanted that year "to cram the romance of a life into a single day".

NY couldn't have been more extraordinary, and that's how it is celebrated in the show - "a helluva town... a visitors' place" where three bell-bottoms "consult their guidebook with reverence and excitement". The Gershwin-quality ballads Bernstein gave them, "Lonely Town" and "I'm So Happy to Be Me", express the extremities of Manhattan sensations - Hopper-like solitude and top-of-the-Empire-State-Building exhilaration.

At the same time, the team all regarded New York as possessing a higher ordinariness, being a small town writ tall. As Peter Conrad noted in The Art of the City, Bernstein's score treats Manhattan as a Main Street, even if it's one long enough to get lost in for a lifetime of adventure. The girls live there, study there, drive a taxi there... hey, even cook there. For them, New York is a fantastic entrepôt in which you pass on a pass; one day they may marry there, set up home, and buy a radiogram on easy terms. In the most poignant song, "Some Other Time" - originally performed by Comden and Green, who wrote themselves lead parts - the ideas of NY as extraordinary and transitional, and as ordinary and permanent, merge. The girls sigh over the brevity of the time they've had with their fellas; the guys lament what they didn't view - not the guidebook sights, but that they "never did get to wake up, seeing you there without your make-up". At the end of their mayfly lifespan, the mariners sail out of the great port and into the war in the Pacific. And never come back.

The director George C Wolfe (born in Frankfort, Kentucky, but named a "living landmark" by the NY Conservancy) staged the show for the Public Theatre in Central Park in the late 1990s, when the skyline was still hopeful, if long past its Manhattan 1945 apex. He said: "The bravest and silliest thing you can do is live through your heart. There's a certain kind of emotional bravery that's essential to going to war, and being in love. And living in New York City."

'On the Town', Coliseum, London WC2 (020-7632 8300; www.eno.org) in rep from Thursday to 24 May

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